San Blas(t) Adventures: Sailing from Colombia to Panama

Now that the moving in is all settled, we can get back to the adventures.

San Blas Islands, Panama — August 2014

After leaving Cartagena, we spent just one night in Turbo before leaving for the promised (is)land chain: the San Blas Islands. There are a few ways you can do this three-night, four-day journey—most of which involve large-scale sailboats and lots of time in the open water. Because of my sensitive sea stomach, and because we wanted to spend time on the islands themselves, we decided to go with the group from San Blas Adventures.

At the start of the trip, as we were first sitting down to meet our other group members and get acquainted, our guide, Jessica said that this was going to be the “highlight of our travels.” I’m not usually one for hyperbolic statements, especially about travel, so I sort of laughed and took it to mean that the trip would be a good one and I’d enjoy myself. Little did I know that Jess would be right.

At first glance, this trip could seem very superficial—lots of pretty islands, a ton of rum, coconut trees, crystal blue waters. It’s everything a Caribbean calendar in the supermarket promises. But with San Blas Adventures, we got a whole new layer of experience, interacting with the indigenous Panamanian population: the Kuna Yala. And that quickly became a very special layer to all of us on the trip. San Blas Adventures is the only tourism company currently operating as a 50/50 partnership between Westerners and the Kuna. Due to bad relationships with tourism companies in the past, a lot of the Kuna communities have shuttered their islands to tourists, and the bulk of the islands we visited with San Blas Adventures were completely closed to other groups.

Spending time on the islands meant staying in actual Kuna villages themselves. I think it’s safe to bet that aside from one of our fellow travelers who was Panamanian-American, the rest of us knew absolutely nothing about the Kuna people or the Kuna culture. So I really appreciated the fact that when we arrived in the first island, Caladonia, Jess took us on a detailed tour of the village, which ran to the very edges of the land space. We learned about their history, their way of life, and their traditions—everything from their political structure to their interactions with mainland Panama to the way the celebrate weddings. What I found most fascinating was their matriarchal system. Female Kunas run the show, from families to businesses; in fact, oftentimes we’d see the men out doing the day-to-day work, and the women would be sitting in hammocks, giving directions. Jess also told us what were appropriate interactions with the villagers and what weren’t (for example, we were advised not to take photos of the women unless we specifically asked), and introduced us to different families as we wove our way through the village. I found that whole experience to be really refreshing and respectful—and felt less like an intruding tourist than a welcomed guest.

Our accommodations were also “very Kuna”: sleeping in hammocks, adventurous bathroom set-ups, and more than the usual share of the elements (especially since it was rainy season!). The first night one enterprising family had set up the equivalent of a hostel for us: basically a large hut that extended out over the water. It was absolutely stunning—but the real kicker was the toilet, which “flushed” (and we’re playing fast and loose with that term here) straight into the sea. The second night there was another hostel, but due to an impending storm that closed some of the outdoor sleeping areas, we couldn’t fit everyone in. That meant we stayed in an actual Kuna home, constructed of coconut fibers with a simple dirt floor. The third night we spent in coconut fiber shelters on the beach on a deserted island, with sand for the floor and fairly open walls.

Our days were spent boating from village to beach to village again, starting our mornings early and maximizing our time in the beautiful Caribbean water. We’d have a simple breakfast of cereal and powdered milk, bread and jam, or fresh fruit, take our ginger pills, and then plop into boats manned by our Kuna captains. Once we got to our “day-trip” islands, we were free to do as we pleased. Sometimes we set up a beach volleyball court, or hiked around as best we could in our flip-flops and bare feet. Sometimes we grouped together for an impromptu yoga session. On our last day, a few of the group swam to a neighboring island. There was lots of snorkeling, tanning, and Frisbee tossing. We shared books and travel stories with our 20 other group mates—who were from Australia, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and America.

Our nights involved claiming our hammocks and hunkering down. The first and second nights we explored the villages and played with the Kuna children, who loved showboating for our clicking cameras. Meals included plenty of fresh seafood, chicken, rice, and D’Elidas hot sauce, served on blue and white Melamine plates as we sat elbow-to-elbow at wooden picnic tables. After we finished our meal, we’d wash the plates in saltwater, using sand as the dish soap. Then we’d gather back around for card games, drinking games, or a rousing round of Werewolf, which involved much shouting and false accusations. Pretty much every person had brought his or her own bottle of rum. Beer, Cokes, and coconuts were all available for purchase in the villages, recorded on an honor tab system.

It was as if some huge hand has pushed the reset button on all of us: despite being unshaven, unshowered, and woken every morning by huge thunderstorms, we were simply and raucously happy. Jess was right—it was the highlight of our travels: the perfect combination of good people and good times. If you ever find yourself passing through Panama and are in the mood for an adventure, you’ve got to do this.

If you’re going on a San Blas Adventure definitely bring:

  • Frisbee, blow-up beach ball, soccer ball
  • Sunscreen is obvious, but also make sure you’ve got bug spray and calamine lotion
  • GoPro, watertight camera case or underwater camera
  • Ziploc bags and trashbags for extra water-proofing (passports, docs, phones, etc)
  • Your favorite drinking game to share
  • A hat or cap to keep the sun at bay (and aloe lotion in case of sunburn)
  • A bottle of hand sanitizer and/or pack of Wet Ones

Pro tips:

  • This trip isn’t for the squeamish—if you’re finicky about showering every day or peeing outdoors, you’ll have to check that at the door.
  • SBA has snorkels, but there aren’t technically enough for everyone to have one if the whole group wanted to snorkel at the same time. We brought our own snorkels (and flippers) and were glad to have them.
  • Bring ginger pills, even if you don’t think you’ll get seasick. If nothing else, they’ll be good for settling your rum hangover.
  • It’s probably worth it to invest in some dry bags before embarking—that’s the one thing I would redo, just for peace of mind.
  • Be advised that Panamanian Immigration is serious business: they completely empty your bag and pick through everything you’ve got in there. So be careful if you’ve got your stuff packed to the gills because it will be a pain to jam it all back in there on a tight schedule. And if you’ve got the chance to do laundry before embarking…do it. Nothing worse than the immigration lady poking through your dirty undies in front of the whole group.

Other than that, what’s left to say but have a great time!

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